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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Piano Concerto no. 2, Op. 126 [37:08]
Dante Rhapsodies, Op. 92 [27:50]
Six Characteristic Pieces, Op.132 – nos. 2 “Study” & 4 “Roundel” [6:18]
Five Caprices, Op. 136 – no. 5 “Tempo di Valse” [5:18]
Benjamin Frith (Piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Andrew Gourlay (cond.)
rec. 1 May 2012, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff (Concerto), 26-27 January 2012, Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex, UK (solo works)

Commentaries on Stanford’s orchestral music usually suggest a stylistic link with Brahms. But you would have to look long and hard to identify Brahms as a significant influence in the second of Stanford’s three piano concertos, which received its British première 100 years ago this year. The most obvious influence is that of Rachmaninov, and in particular his second Piano Concerto, which makes its presence felt at the very start, with great surging waves of music underpinned by turbulent cascades from the piano. Stanford conducted the British première of the Rachmaninov in 1910 shortly before he started work on this Concerto, and while there is none of the passion or emotional turmoil of Rachmaninov in Stanford’s writing, neither is it in any way tight-lipped or reserved; Stanford was, after all, a fiery Irishman at heart. With none of the personal insecurities which affected Rachmaninov, this is a muscular and self-assured work which quickly shakes off any sense of the derivative (although there is a moment in the first movement – around 2’10” - where we cannot but recall the Grieg Concerto) and asserts its own distinct independence with a musical language which will be readily identifiable to any of those who know Stanford’s symphonies.

Commentaries on Stanford’s orchestral music often suggest puzzlement that it is not better known. And if that is justified in the case of the symphonies and rhapsodies, which made such an impact when they first appeared on Chandos in the late 1980s, it is especially so with this concerto; a work which is of such impressive musical quality, masterly crafted for the orchestra, beautifully written and full of wonderfully distinctive melodic and harmonic ideas. Yet it persistently fails to catch the public attention, despite the fact that this is, by my reckoning, its fifth outing on CD. I would not suggest that it is the best (I think that accolade deserves to go to Finghin Collins and the RTE Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Montgomery on Claves) but there is enough here to attract the attention of those not already convinced as to the worth of this significant British piano concerto of the last century.

For a start Benjamin Frith is clearly totally committed to this work, and his solo playing is, if anything, even more persuasive than Collins. He appreciates the fact that this is more a dialogue than a combative concerto and tempers his occasional opportunities for virtuoso display with a real sense of integration with the orchestra. His work as a chamber musician – Frith is the pianist with the outstanding Gould Trio – seems to inform his whole approach allowing the inner detail of the music to shine through when others might be more inclined to dominate (there is a classic example of this after 8’30” in the finale where glittering piano figures are kept well down to allow the orchestra its head).

What reservations I have rest with the orchestra itself which, assured and polished as the BBC NOW invariably is, fails really to lift itself to meet the vision which Frith so eloquently presents. Andrew Gourlay manages the orchestra with a firm hand, but it is solidly workmanlike rather than inspired, and at times one wishes he would give them more freedom to assert themselves, not least in a slow movement which seems too often stifled and tightly regulated; there is more emotional scope here than Gourlay seems to appreciate.

Stanford’s church music is widely known and admired, his chamber music and songs have a firm foothold in the repertoire, and his orchestral music has certainly made something of an impact on CD (if not in the concert hall), but his piano music remains largely unknown. Frith fills the remainder of this CD with an interesting cross-section of Stanford’s solo piano works, from the decidedly Lisztian Dante Rhapsodies to the faintly innocuous Tempo di Valse from a set of Caprices dating from 1913. Again, one recognises Frith’s total conviction that this is music which has been unjustly neglected, and his are compelling and utterly persuasive performances mixing a towering musical intellect with beautifully tailored technique; particularly in the first of the Dante Rhapsodies, subtitled “Francesca”. The spirit of Schumann is strongly evoked in the second (“Beatrice”), while that composer is celebrated more directly in the fourth of the Six Characteristic Pieces, “Roundel”, which carries the dedication to Schumann on the centenary of his birth, and is a highly effective pastiche of one of the Kinderszenen.

Yet while it is fun to identify influences in this music, Stanford is too good and distinctive a composer merely to be seen as a conglomeration of 19th century influences, and this music has a distinction and uniqueness which once again prompts the question, why is it not better known? This CD with its superbly committed performances from Benjamin Frith certainly deserves to win converts.

Marc Rochester



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